It’s easy to peg John Singer Sargent—whose best-known portraits are of stiff-backed children and elaborately dressed socialites drowning in tulle—as a fluffy society painter of the rigid late-Victorian era. To wit, the biggest scandal of his career involved a portrait of “Madame X,” aka socialite Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautrea, with a lasciviously draped dress strap falling onto her shoulder. (Gasp!)
But Sargent (1856–1925) was infinitely more freewheeling than his better-known works would imply. In the exhibition Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, which opens on June 30 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, a different kind of painter emerges.